When Jeenah Gwak traveled to New York last year, the teenager was expecting new experiences. But she wasn’t prepared for one of them to be overt racism from a random stranger. Amid the noise and bustle of Times Square, she and her mother walked past a show promoter without even hearing his speech. But she sure heard what he yelled at her: “You don’t speak English, do you?
“Growing up in my ‘Bellevue Bubble’, I’ve never heard anyone assume that about me,” she said. After this experience, she began to notice microaggressions in her own community. At the start of the pandemic, Gwak read about anti-Asian hate crimes on the Asian American website NextShark. But she hasn’t seen these stories in the mainstream news. She realized that Asian Americans needed their own media spaces to make their voices heard.
A year later, Gwak and a team of nine volunteers are working on the fourth issue of their free online magazine What We Experience. Dedicated to sharing unique Asian American stories and illustrating the breadth of the Asian American experience, themed quarterly issues are complemented by monthly “What We Ponder” blog posts. The first issue, published last September, was titled “What We’re Living – NOW” and covered topical issues facing Asian Americans in 2020. The following themes were immigration stories and women’s issues.
“When I thought of the title “What we live”, I wanted to underline what we live; the ‘we’ is underlined,” Gwak said. “The platform is a space for people to find comfort through their own experiences by learning that they are not alone.”
But Gwak emphasizes that “we” is also inclusive. “It underscores that there is not just one Asian American narrative,” she said. Gwak and his team aren’t interested in narrow definitions of who counts as Asian. They strive to reflect the full diversity of Asian ethnicities, including biracial, adoptee, immigrant, and American-born.
Gwak said they are getting positive feedback from readers of varying backgrounds and generations.
“A lot of people have contacted us and thanked us for creating the magazine. This is what keeps us going,” she said.
When she had the idea for the magazine, she knew exactly where to start.
“It was actually very simple. I texted Hope with my idea,” she said.
Hope Yu, then a sophomore at Garfield High School in Seattle, had volunteered with Gwak for three years at YouthKAN, a mental health organization that serves young Asian Americans.
The two created a web page and social media accounts for What We Experience and reached out to their own social media channels for collaborators. Their all-volunteer team of high school students (and one college student) has grown with each issue. They’ve accepted a few outside submissions, but volunteers generate most of the magazine’s content while fulfilling their administrative roles.
The team meets weekly on Zoom where they jointly decide on the theme of each issue and generate story ideas. Each member chooses their own topics for articles. The magazine’s only expense so far is web hosting, which the team has covered with their own spending money. But there is a donate button on the website, and Gwak hopes to fix printing issues in the future.
Gwak is currently a junior at Newport High School in Bellevue. She and Yu plan to stay involved with What We Experience in college while transferring some responsibilities to younger students. For now, she is focused on expanding the magazine’s reach. The next June issue will focus on gender and sexuality in the Asian American community.